A small boat skidded to a halt, sending up a water drizzle over the pier on which six of us were standing. The captain didn’t look particularly happy to see us, with our weekend bags and an assortment of vodka and wine bottles. The Finnish christening weekend was stretching ahead of us, like the rainbow.
Our journey started from Helsinki. In the morning we were picked up by our friend Kati, who had a double task of driving us to the harbour in Kasnas, from which we were to sail, and delivering the christening gown, which has been a family heirloom for generations. The drive takes us about two and a half hours, but it’s fun, as we talk non-stop and look at picturesque landscapes, modern houses and Finns, cycling en masse through the forestry.
Kasnas harbour is a tranquil place, even though it’s full of people getting off boats, waiting for boats or stocking up on weekend supplies from a tiny shop. The harbour offers several options of sail. The most convenient (and the cheapest) is to sail in a friends’ boat. A lot of Finns, who own or rent islands in the archipelago, have their boats moored at the peer. One can also hire a water taxi or take a ferry, which drops you off at the island you want.
Our boat isn’t particularly big and the bearded captain looks menacing, not that our companions mind. By the time we board, boys (of which there are three) lie on the deck, sipping cold beers and exchanging jokes. The sail to our friend’s ‘country retreat’ takes about 20 minutes, but that can vary depending on the weather, as some areas are part of open seas and can get rough. The boat bounces on the waves and the drizzle lands on your face, glinting like Swarovski crystals in the sun.
An odd boat whizzes by or a small island rises from the sea and then disappears as you sail by. Most of them belong to somebody, but deserted ones put thoughts of Robinson Crusoe adventures in my head.
In the summertime, daytime temperatures hover in the mid 20s and the evenings are cooled down by the sea breezes that blow from the Gulf of Finland. In the evenings the sun dips below the horizon only for three or four hours and the skyline glows with a variety of colours, hardly offering any distingsion between dusk and dawn.
We are sailing towards Turkus-Hipis archipelago, where our friends own an island called Rosala. Their island is one of the last ones before open waters and is just before a military base. In winter months, before global warming kicked in, the waters froze solidly and one could drive straight to the island, as the roads were tested by military trucks every day, to make sure no one fell in the water and disappeared in its freezing wilderness forever.
As we arrive and disembark, the air fills up with the sound of kisses and screams of delight. The springy ground on which I now stand is scattered with tiny plants and flowers, names of which I won’t even attempt to pronounce for fear of being ridiculed. We are lead towards a beautiful wooden house, where everyone gets allocated with beds and cupboards-ours is a wooden bunk bed, the likes of which I haven’t seen since my childhood.
Some of us walk around the island, choosing our footing carefully, as we have been forewarned about an odd harmless snake. There are a few isolated wooden cabins, a toilet, some grungy plains and smorgasbord of dense trees, which hide the sauna on the water’s edge. The island has its own microclimate and you get drunk on the refreshing northern air, which later makes me sleep like a baby.
The big day is upon us. The island is a riot of activity, as everyone is catching up with each other, keeping an eye on the kids, who are keen to jump on the trampoline or swing in a hammock, and there is a hearty breakfast before the ceremony. The coffee is piping hot and we have it with thick rye bread, which is delicious with anything smothered on it-fresh butter, Finnish smoky viola cheese or jam.
Rosala-Hitis Island, which is situated in the Swedish speaking part of the archipelago, is a 30 minute sail. We walk to the Lutheran church, which is a big cherry red building with a steely grey roof. The ceremony lasts an hour and is intercepted by kid’s laughter and the baby’s cries. Above our heads hang two candelabra, which were donated by our friend’s family, giving the church an air of both domesticity and grandeur.
Later on we pop into the shop for some cooling lemonade and beer (it also offers a colourful selection of seasonal fruit and vegetables and smoked, pickled and freshly caught fish), but have no time to visit a Viking village, which is a little further on. Seagulls screech overhead, as we get into our boats to sail back.
Back on firm soil we queue for plates full of salad, potatoes and lashings of pink crayfish. Toasts are raised and everyone feels happy, until one of the kids disappears. He gets found five minutes later, half way up the ladder, climbing towards the roof. The little monkey gets told off and peace is restored. Finns have a reputation for being reserved, but from my experience, partly fuelled by bitter Finnish vodka, they are humorous and very laid back. As the meal comes to an end with coffee and cake, everyone helps with cleaning and washing up in the cold water, full of Fairy bubbles.
We all get back together by the fire, which, unfortunately, doesn’t deter the super sized mosquitoes from taking regular bites out of your flesh. The sauna, which is synonymous with Finland, awaits us. A big pile of stones heats up the room. You whip each other’s bodies with birch branches (girls and boys do it separately, as we are too ‘international’ to go naked together, like typical Finns), followed by a mad dash towards the icy waters, which make you feel incredibly alive. After several rounds I wrap myself in the fluffy towel and stand on the wooden steps, drinking water and watching the world float by. The simplicity and the beauty of the surroundings make me look up at the darkening sky and make a wish to come back.